One story. Many languages.

Have you ever read a story, and then read the same story in another language, dear reader? Did you find one or the other better, more amusing, more entertaining? Or were they equal in those and other ways?

It is amazing for me to realise how large the difference in languages are, when putting a story from one into the other. For a dinner party I am asked to read a few chapters from one of the Hilda books. The dinner party will be in Germany, so I asked if it would be appreciated to translate the chapters into German. It would indeed be appreciated, so I started translating…

Translating? It came down to almost completely rewriting the two selected chapters in German. Translating the text is one thing, but keeping the meaning and the jokes alive, with the wonderful quirks of the English language I used, proved to be quite a chore. Some things are easy to translate, these are the general words and situations, descriptions of locations and so forth, but certain parts proved impossible to put directly into German. I had to rewrite – or rather reinvent certain sentences and even entire paragraphs. After all, Hilda has to stay true to her character, regardless of what language her stories are told in!

Now I know that my grasp of the German language is not bad, but far from perfect, so I did ask a German friend to look over the texts. Reading out Hilda at a dinner party is a big promotion for the witch, as well as a first “public appearance”, so I want this to be as good as it can be.

This exercise also made me appreciate the work of professional translators much more. It is simple to translate words, but it is difficult to translate a story and keep its spirit and soul alive. For that you have to understand the soul of the story.

I think this tells me that not every translator can translate every story. If a story does not touch you, you can’t convey its heart, its essence.

5 thoughts on “One story. Many languages.”

  1. I often find that when I’m watching Japanese movies with subtitles on that I sometimes don’t agree with how the person chose to translate certain sentences. I say aloud “Actually they’re saying /this/.” Language is fascinating, and I’m one of those crazy people who wants to someday be a professional translator. :O

    1. I wanted to be one of those crazies too, but as there were (back then) only a few translators needed with Dutch as native language, I had to divert my plans. I never stopped loving and learning languages though.

  2. I can understand this, that some things don’t translate directly. I have read the Harry Potter books in American English and British English, and while not entirely different languages, they have a distinctly different “feel” to them. I far prefer the British versions.

  3. I much prefer to read a book in the original language. The language it was written in evokes the feelings and images of the author the best. I am also a native Dutch, but often cringe at translations available, so just gave up on those, lol. A book just doesn’t “feel” the same when you read it. A friend of mine is a very gifted translator, she has translated many an English book btw. I remember her saying though that once she had to start translating halfway a series. She was translating the Dragonriders of Pern series, but the publishers called her in on the second book. She said she cringed every time she ran into names of places she would have translated differently herself but was kinda stuck with. All through translating the series she kept having the feeling it was off!

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